Alex Garland’s latest sci-fi thriller doesn’t care if you understand what it’s going for. In the hands of a less capable writer/director, the whole movie would have quickly fallen apart, it’s stunning visuals and moral quagmires left to bore and frustrate us. Thankfully Garland brings the same level of professionalism and craftsmanship that made 2015s Ex Machina so profoundly great. Despite still being obtuse and murky, the world of Annihilation feels distinguished to the point where wading through Garland’s thematic follow-up never feels like a chore.
Like Ex Machina, Annihilation takes it's time in exploring it's narrative. We only know certain things when Garland wants us to, and any theories we might have are swiftly cast aside for exactly what they are. The film is visually beautiful but it’s also frustratingly obtuse; where Ex Machina told a straightforward story while raising thoughtful questions, Annihilation tells a fairly straightforward story while espousing “could be’s, what ifs, and maybes,” without leaving any room for proper discussion at the end.
It starts out simply enough: A domed field dubbed "the shimmer" has begun expanding outwards, threatening to take over the known world. None of the military teams tasked with reaching the centre of the shimmer have returned. Enter Natalie Portman and the team of scientists who have signed up for a more research focused expedition into the void. What follows is a violent mix of Kubrick esque visuals and series of great performances documenting a descent into madness.
Working with Portman are Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson, who each bring dynamic personality to their character that shifts constantly throughout their time in the shimmer. It’s a talented cast working with a meaty script and everyone (including a brief appearance from Oscar Isaac) is on point. Portman gives a grounded and emotionally charged performance that allows the other characters to play off her well. For me, Thompson stole the show and I would have liked to see her character fleshed out a little more. One of my complaints with Annihilation is that it never explores it’s characters enough, and since the film is about this crazy phenomena the characters feel more like vessels to explore this larger thing, instead of human beings in the middle of a crazy scenario. Part of me thinks this what Garland's plan all along, that we’re all insignificant in the face of this bigger entity. I just couldn’t help but feel detached from these characters I was supposed to care for.
This lack of connection comes down to the way Garland structured the film, using an ending first method. The beginning of the film is Portman being interviewed about her experience in the shimmer, and then we work our way back to the beginning as events unfold. This style of storytelling robs the film of suspense, since we know who lives and dies before we ever start the journey. Despite this, there are some genuine moments of terror throughout, and even though I knew what was about to happen, I still cowered in my seat like a child.
Half the fun of Annihilation is that conversation you have with friends afterwards, picking at the small threads Garland leaves for us to extrapolate on. I’m sure there’s Reddit threads and IMDB forums dedicated to figuring out just what exactly Annihilation is going for. None of this would matter though if it were a bad film and thankfully it’s not. At this point I prefer Ex Machina over Garland’s latest but I do admire the final product. Adapting Annihilation from a giant trilogy of books I’m sure was no easy task and as a film, it does a lot of things right.
The biggest problem with the film is that it gets in its own way. Previously, Garland did a fantastic job of mixing cerebral sci-fi elements with the more emotional character moments. Annihilation is too focused on making us think about the implications of what’s happening, and forgets that we need to care about what’s going on in order to reach the conclusions Garland has created. Over time I think Annihilation will garner another look from most people who aren't film buffs, but I'm ultimately not surprised it didn't do well at the box office.
If you’re looking for more than just a popcorn flick for your Tuesday night movie, definitely check out Annihilation.